Original Ideas at ABC Family
Network's President Says Summer Slate Showcases Channel's New Direction~

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Chris Pursell

The ABC Family Channel, looking to shake off its reputation as "ABC Repeated," has lined up an ambitious slate of summer programming. It includes two teen series, an afternoon teen block, two reality series, three original movies, music specials and a limited-run reality series revolving around the wedding of Sabrina star Melissa Joan Hart.

The aggressive plans to air more original and newly acquired product were announced by the cable channel's President Angela Shapiro, who took the reins of ABC Family just over a year ago. She was hired in March 2002 and given a mandate to reinvigorate and refocus the service, which reaches 85 million homes.

"I spent my first four months here in research trying to get to know who [the] audiences were for this channel," said Ms. Shapiro, who previously was president of Buena Vista Productions and ABC Daytime. "Now you'll be seeing my mark in late May as we look to grow our programming and audiences without alienating our core viewers."

The five-day-per-week teen block, to air from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., is designed to become "the new destination for teenagers," according to Linda Mancuso, senior VP and head of programming for the channel. "Teens won't accept anything that is spoon-fed to them, and we feel that the series we've selected play perfectly to not only the demographic but [also] our channel's needs."

Teens are also the target for a new reality show to star Chicago cult TV personality Brendan Leonard. Based on a successful cable access series out of Chicago, The Brendan Leonard Show would become the first show to be produced, directed and written entirely by teens. Mr. Leonard and friends will report on various aspects of teen life, including relationships, school and hobbies. It has elements reminiscent of a milder version of Jackass and The Tom Green Show, which boosted Mr. Leonard's following in the Windy City.

The working title for another new reality series targeted at teens and young adults is Changing Lives. It will feature two teenagers in each episode from different states and diverse backgrounds who trade places for a period of time, taking over the other's daily routine. The two teens will live each other's lives at school and work and with friends and family.

The two series will be placed with some recently acquired sitcoms as part of the programming block.

The company announced in January that it would move forward with Dance Fever from Merv Griffin and Bruce Nash as well as Michael Davies' Perfect Match: New York. Dance Fever will feature dance enthusiasts who hit the floor to impress a panel of celebrity judges. The series debuts July 13. Leading up to the premiere the channel will strip a half-hour of tryouts every night to build interest.

Perfect Match, from Britain's Channel 4, is about single people who place their love life into the hands of family and friends who try to set them up. Each three-week-long experiment will be condensed into a one-hour episode set to begin July 27.

"We have amazing beachfront property with this channel," said Ms. Shapiro. "Now its up to us to decide what kind of house to build. Linda has provided an ambitious start to lay the foundation of that."

The company is mulling a return of My Life as a Sitcom for a second go-around, but will not bring back reality series The Last Resort. In addition, it is beginning to work on scripted series that could debut as early as Jan. 4.

Among reality specials set for the channel, Tying the Knot: The Wedding of Melissa Joan Hart and Mark Wilkerson will begin July 27. The six unscripted specials follow the Sabrina star as she plans her big day and will culminate in her wedding to Mr. Wilkerson. Ms. Hart's Hartbreak Films will produce, with Ms. Hart and her mother, Sabrina producer Paula Hart, as executive producers.

Spring will bring music specials produced by David Saltz, beginning with one featuring Faith Hill. Each show is expected to be 40 percent music and 60 percent behind-the-scenes. "This is a true slice of life for these A-list artists and something that has never been seen anywhere else before," Ms. Mancuso said.

ABC Family is also planning for six to eight original movies every year, each with a romantic-comedy theme. The first, This Time Around will air June 22 and star Carly Pope, Sara Rue and Brian Austin Green. July will see the premiere of Lucky 7 about a terminally ill mother who leaves her daughter a timeline for finding Mr. Right. Then in August, ABC Family will air See Jane Date, based on the best-selling book of the same name in which a girl goes on a dating spree in search of a boyfriend.

"We're seeing major pieces of talent line up to work with us, both in front of and behind the camera," Ms. Mancuso said. "They want to do romantic comedies, and we are continuing to look at books and take verbal pitches as we continue to shore up our development slate."

Despite the slew of original programming, ABC Family will continue to repurpose series such as The Bachelor in its lineup. Ms. Shapiro said that she is happy to re-air ABC series as long as they fit the right mold.

When ABC Family does repurpose, it puts its own spin on the show. For the Academy Awards, baseball playoffs or series such as The Bachelor, ABC Family adds what it calls "The XYZ" factor. That means they add a new twist to programming, such as commentary and factoids designed to reward the viewer for watching.

"When I was first ap­proached about this job, I asked if ABC Family was going to be the repeat network, and I wouldn't have taken the position if they said it was," Ms. Shapiro explained. "That said, we have been successful re-airing series such as The Bachelor, and when I look at the resources of Disney, it's almost like a treasure chest, from theme parks to books to the network. I'd be crazy not to take advantage of them."